Life seems simpler with stereotypes. With a barrage of information flooding our minds, email inboxes, and timelines, the tendency of our brains to make snap decisions and create simple sound bites off of limited information has become even more present, and at times extremely dangerous.
This ‘blink of an eye’ thinking becomes really steep when it enters our criminal justice system, a fact I had the honor of discussing with Will Snowden, founder of The Juror Project, an organization that’s working to combat this type of thinking with a simple conversation. We discussed his past and ultimately if the justice system can be real, as justice for many marginalized lives in this country has seemed as real as Santa Claus is alive.
Read below to discover how he turned the stereotypes and injustices he faced as a mixed race child into motivation for a career that empowers marginalized communities to combat the inequalities of the system in a simple and effective way:
The empowering aspect of my career comes from me growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is a very segregated city. They used to call it, "the Selma of the North." I had the privilege and honor of being the son of two awesome parents, Billy Ray Snowden and Kay Snowden, who both raised me with an eye towards fairness and justice.
My sisters and I are the children of a white mother and a black father so our views and lens of race was very different than people who didn't have that upbringing. Whenever we would have racist encounters in Milwaukee, which was more often than not, we were able to go home and tell our parents about it and they immediately came to our defense.
An example of this is my freshmen year of high school. I was running cross country practice, and we ran into a more affluent and predominantly white area. Since I was kind of slow, I was about a mile behind the rest of the pack. As I was trying to catch up, this police officer pulls up and says, "Why are you running so fast?" The way he said it sounded like he was assuming I had just committed a crime, as in his mind there seemed to be no other reason for a young black kid to be running through that neighborhood.
I looked down at the green and white tank top and the short green shorts I was wearing and thought that no human being would subject themselves to this type of attire unless they were running cross country practice. I looked at him, while looking at my shirt and said, "I'm running cross country practice. What are you talking about?" And he goes, "Sure...likely story." He didn't believe me, so I ran back to the High School and told my coach. My coach was upset.
I told my parents and they weren't going to allow that to just happen without some type of conversation. So we got in the family van, drove out to Brookfield Police Station, about 30 minutes from where we lived, and had a conversation with the police officers and informed them that they can't just make those types of assumptions. I'm very fortunate to have parents who always defended me when I experienced some form of injustice. Having that upbringing and history in my life, and being protected and defended by my parents, I feel it's my responsibility to defend my community.
In 2012, while in law school, I was awarded the opportunity to be a law clerk at the Orleans Public Defenders. In that experience I really was exposed to the myriad of civil rights violations happening to people of color, specifically poor people of color. After that law clerkship I already knew I wanted to be a public defender, and it cemented where I was going to be a public defender -- in New Orleans.
Louisiana is the prison capital of the world, and they're locking up too many black people. That's something that offended me, and I think it's something that should offend every American in this country. When I came down to New Orleans, I wanted to be part of an office that really was working towards trying to change that statistic, trying to bring quality representation to the people of New Orleans.
85% of the cases that come through criminal district court here in New Orleans are assigned to the Public Defender's office, which means the majority of the people that come into contact with the criminal justice system are poor.
I had a particular experience my second year being a public defender. It was a trial involving a case where a client was charged with maybe two crack rocks and three pills. He didn't have a prescription for the pills, and obviously crack cocaine is an illegal substance to have. He had gone to trial before and lost on this very same case, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The case came back on appeal, as a result of something that's called Batson violation which tries to ensure prosecutors aren’t illegitimately removing people of color from the jury.
We went through the voir dire process, which is a conversation between the attorneys and the potential jurors that helps the lawyers learn about which people in the room would be a good fit to serve on the jury for their type of case. In that conversation, we got general background information from the jurors, and their perspectives on drug cases. When the jury walked in the room, one question that immediately came to my mind was, "Well, where are the black folks?" New Orleans is about 60% black, but we didn't have that representation for people that were walking into the courtroom to potentially serve on the jury for this case. It was frustrating to me. The only representation of people of color in the courtroom are unfortunately the majority of the people who are being charged with crimes, and we aren't getting a fair representation on the jury panels.
We started the voir dire process off by asking questions of people on the jury, and there was this older black guy who said, "You know, I couldn't vote to convict somebody for possessing a couple pills and a couple crack rocks." And I asked him, "Well, why?" And he said, "He's not harming anybody. It sounds like he's going to go do drugs in his home. He's not distributing the drugs. I don't think it really makes sense to be sending these types of people who might have drug addictions into prison. I don't think they belong in prison."
On a philosophical level, I agreed 100%. But unfortunately, when he used the language, ‘I can't convict somebody for this type of crime’ he flagged himself as a person to be removed from the jury, for what they call ‘legal cause.’ There were other people who chimed in as well saying things like, "Yeah, you know, I think we're sending the wrong people to prison. I couldn't vote to convict someone for this drug offense. It's really not something that's worthy of prison time." Little do these people know that when the prosecutors ask these types of questions and get these types of answers, they’re getting identified as individuals who should be removed for legal cause from the jury. So who we're left with to serve on the jury are people who think it's ok to send people to prison for the rest of their lives for having a couple of pills or a couple of crack rocks, essentially for having an addiction.
My opinion is, the people who are being removed from the jury for just cause may have more familiarity with people being convicted of these crimes who have struggled with drug addiction or substance abuse issues, and they may be referencing their friends or family members who have battled with substance abuse issues and know that those people aren't necessarily bad people. They aren't people who necessarily belong in prison.
That initial trial really frustrated me because I knew there were some folks on the jury that had the right mindset and they had the type of diversity that we needed on the jury, not just diversity of color but diversity of thought, and they had been removed. And every trial after that, I noticed how the prosecutors would strategically create conversations with some people on the jury that would just automatically get them removed for legal cause. In that particular case the client was found guilty and this time he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, again for two crack rocks and three pills.
And I thought, how do I increase the chance for more people to get on the jury? And I realized, we need to be having a conversation, because these people who are being removed from juries have the right mindset, they have the right goals, and the right interests in trying to serve our community, but they are not able to participate in this legal process.
When we think about what we're entitled to as people accused of crimes, it's a fair cross section of our community. So the person who loves the New Orleans police department and the person that hates the New Orleans police department, or the person who thinks all drug addicts should go to prison and the people who think drug addicts don't belong in prison but need to get out-of-custody-treatment, should all be represented on a jury. With that diversity in the jury, we're going to get longer deliberations, more questions are going to be asked, and a more objective decision is going to be made.
I wanted to have these conversations with people so they can get hip to the game on how people of color are being strategically removed from the jury panels, and essentially removed from the conversation of who should be sent to prison. That spurred the idea of creating The Juror Project.
The Juror project has two main goals. The first is to increase the diversity of jury panels. The second is to improve the overall perspective of jury duty. I examined all the trials I attended with a watchful eye, and began determining why people are getting removed from juries. I found three main reasons, 1) there are people who don't agree with the behavior of the accused is worthy of prison time and voice that 2) there are people who don’t agree with the type and/or length of sentence attached to the crime and voice that and 3) there are people who just doesn't want to be there and see jury duty as a negative and inconvenient thing.
At The Juror Project we try to address all three of these individuals by saying, "Listen if you disagree with the crime, the answer is not to remove yourself from the jury by saying 'I can't convict,' the answer is if you disagree with that law, get on the jury and vote not guilty if you disagree with it. If you disagree with the sentence and think it’s wrong that someone is automatically sentenced to 15 years because of a robbery as a mandatory minimum, the answer is to get on the jury and vote not guilty. And for the individual who does not want to be there, they're simply just not educated with how important this process is.”
It started off as an idea in mind of, 'What should these conversations look like?' The first stage was researching all the types of violations that were happening in juries, and researching if there have been other organizations that have been trying to lead this effort. Fortunately and unfortunately no one is trying to have the dialogue the way that I'm trying to frame it. I started by creating these power point presentations and then finding an audience, which started out small. First it was high school students, and then from there it expanded to neighborhood associations, to churches, then I got invited to the National Bar Association, then it expanded to universities and law schools. And next month I get to go to my hometown of Milwaukee to give a presentation in training public defenders about this effort. So really I've just been taking this idea, framing it under the idea with more diversity equals more fairness in the courtroom.
When we have conversations about what lives matter, when we think about, "How do we get involved and how do we influence this criminal justice system that has been enslaving our community for decades?” the response is to make this sacrifice of serving jury duty. To improve the system, there are people I've had conversations with about jury duty who say, "It's taking a week out of my time." But little do they know that week of sacrifice can save the life of my client who is facing life in prison.
When I see the mistreatment of my clients on a regular basis, I feel like it's my responsibility to protect and defend them as best as I can and as the constitution requires. Having that upbringing and history in my life, and being protected and defended by my parents, I feel it's my responsibility to defend my community. A lot of people in my office, including myself who aren't from New Orleans, have come here because we want to fight. And we want to fight on behalf of the poor folks in New Orleans who are charged with crimes.
The narrative around our criminal justice system has always been tough on crime, and it's really focusing on the crime not the individual. Well what are the contributors to our crime rate? Poverty, lack of resources, systemic racism, lack of proper education, poor family values are all part of this complex problem. For decades we thought that locking people up and imprisoning people is the answer to these problems in our society. Louisiana is the prison capital of the world, and for some reason our crime rate has been staying the same - that tells you that the imprisonment of people is not reducing crime. Things have become so black and white in our laws, because it's been administered in oppressing black people in a certain sense and benefiting white people (profits of the prison industrial complex) in a certain sense.
The power and influence that one black person can have in the jury room, can address things like implicit biases, can address things like racial anxiety. More questions will be raised. You're gonna have longer deliberations and will get a more objective decision that will be made. When we think about how our criminal justice system should run and operate, we don't want race to play a role that's influencing someone's decision to vote guilty or not guilty. We want a fair representation of the fact we want full context of this human being that's standing trial. When you have a more diverse jury, more people are going to be able to understand the case in a different way and have conversations about the facts that are presented in an effort that's going to lead to quality deliberation and a more fair system.
If you're not doing something, you're doing nothing. And here in New Orleans there's so many things going wrong. The Juror Project is a way to help make things right in the sense that our community can be more involved than we think we can. There's tremendous power in our community through jury duty. There's a good number of people who kind of cast off jury duty as a waste of time or a bad experience, but when we all awaken to the idea this is a very unique way to be involved in the criminal justice system, and essentially a way to lead the decarceration effort, I really truly believe that we can have an impact on deciding who we think belongs in prison and who doesn't.